Good news for cat lovers: New research out of University College London (UCL) suggests that cat ownership is not linked to psychosis — so go ahead and snuggle up close to your little furbaby. The new findings call into question previous studies claiming that exposure to the common cat parasite Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) during childhood could lead to elevated risks of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in adolescence. Most people exposed to the T. gondii parasite do not produce symptoms; however, for those with compromised immune systems, an infection could result in flu-like symptoms and blindness, as well as mental health issues. While cats, especially those allowed to prowl out of doors, are known carriers of this parasite, the present study found that those growing up with feline housemates showed no higher risk for the development of mental disorders than those without a whiskered friend — so it seems your adorable kitten is not to blame after all!
The study, published this week in the journal Psychological Medicine, followed approximately 5,000 people born between 1991 and 1992 over the course of 18 years. The researchers noted which families had cats during pregnancy and childhood and which did not, unlike the smaller past studies that relied on the subjects to remember and report the circumstances of their youth.
Previous research has shown that a person with T. gondii is nearly twice as likely to manifest schizophrenic symptoms. However, once the large swath of data was analyzed and adjusted for socioeconomic factors, UCL researchers were unable to find a correlation between cat ownership and mental illness, suggesting that cat owners are not as vulnerable to T. gondii as previously thought.
"The message for cat owners is clear: there is no evidence that cats pose a risk to children's mental health," said lead author Dr Francesca Solmi in a press release. "In our study, initial unadjusted analyses suggested a small link between cat ownership and psychotic symptoms at age 13, but this turned out to be due to other factors. Once we controlled for factors such as household over-crowding and socioeconomic status, the data showed that cats were not to blame. Previous studies reporting links between cat ownership and psychosis simply failed to adequately control for other possible explanations."
While transferring the parasite from cats to humans isn’t as easy as one would think, researchers still advise that pregnant women should try to minimize T. gondii exposure by avoiding dirty cat litter. "There is good evidence that T. gondii exposure during pregnancy can lead to serious birth defects and other health problems in children," senior author Dr James Kirkbride said in a press release. "As such, we recommend that pregnant women should continue to follow advice not to handle soiled cat litter in case it contains T. gondii." Cat feces containing the parasite can become infectious one or two days after, so continue to clean out the box regularly and you should be fine!